Thematic Analysis: On the Differences Between a Biopic and Documentary

What I find most interesting is the fact that documentaries are generally considered more “truthful” than biopics even though the documentarian has more tricks at their disposal to trick the audience into believing their message. Also, many documentaries are created with an agenda in mind, leading me to wonder why people don’t question their accuracy […]

What I find most interesting is the fact that documentaries are generally considered more “truthful” than biopics even though the documentarian has more tricks at their disposal to trick the audience into believing their message. Also, many documentaries are created with an agenda in mind, leading me to wonder why people don’t question their accuracy as much as they should. Outside of the cinematic style—one being creative non-fiction, the other a documentary—I don’t see a difference between Oliver Stone’s approach to Nixon and Michael Moore’s approach to Bowling for Columbine—both narratives are an alleged search for “truth.” But, there is a core difference that leaves me wondering if auteurs like Michael Moore should be held to a higher standard of fact checking.

In the past, I’ve inquired on the definition of “biopic” and the obligations an auteur creating one has to historical accuracy. Personally, I believe the solution is “intent.” In a prefaced disclaimer to Nixon, Oliver Stone admitted that he took creative license with the narrative in order to discover “the truth of Richard Nixon.” Note the interesting choice of words. He wants the audience to understand the mindset of Nixon and made the stylistic choice to present us with Nixon’s perception of himself, a tragic hero. Much hand wringing has occurred over Stone’s connection of Kennedy’s assassination with Nixon. However, the movie doesn’t actually make an implicit accusation against Nixon. Instead, Nixon realizes the benefits he’s received from certain actions that eventually led to Kennedy’s assassination. Since we’re seeing the story from Nixon’s point-of-view and Nixon is obviously an unreliable narrator, Stone hasn’t deceived the public at all. In fact, he’s delivering exactly what he said he would—the “truth of Richard Nixon”.

Michael Moore, on the other hand, presents his story as “truth,” not the “truth of gun obsession in America.” That being said, he has been accused of using editing tricks to strengthen his argument. In one sequence in Bowling for Columbine, Moore discovers a bank that gives out rifles to new customers. As depicted in the movie, Moore receives his rifle the same day—long before his background check is completed. According to Michael Wilson’s Michael Moore Hates America, a documentary criticizing Moore’s films, the bank (a licensed firearms dealer) accused Moore cinema magic—namely, time compression through clever editing—to change the nature of the situation. Moore maintains his integrity, but the fact of the matter is that we never see the unedited footage shot that day. Consider the notion that a documentary is the cinematic form of an academic persuasive essay. We are required to cite specific works and examples to back up all our claims and ideas and provide the sources for those citations. Anyone who reads our papers can then explore our sources and validate (or invalidate) what we’ve said in our papers. Moore isn’t subject to the same academic rigor. With many documentaries, we’re not able to see the source material that eventually became the final product.

With Nixon, Oliver Stone told the audience up front to expect inaccuracies, some even deliberate. That being said, who’s being more truthful with their products—Stone or Moore?

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